This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Faculty look to leverage strengths

Biological systems topic of third retreat

Published: April 7, 2005

Contributing Editor

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More than 100 researchers from areas as varied as oral biology and pharmacometrics convened on Tuesday in Clemens Hall, North Campus, under the umbrella of "Molecular Recognition in Biological Systems" to envision how to propel this identified UB strategic strength into a national and international force.

The task facing faculty in the third in a series of "envisioning retreats" was to select the academic and scholarly foci that will best distinguish UB in this area, and to produce a white paper reporting on their themes and recommendations.


At the close of the five-hour session, the attendees, commended for their collegiality and willingness to collaborate, had agreed generally on several actions that could create a "whole" stronger that their separate strengths.

One overriding concern expressed by several attendees was the challenge of researchers communicating across departments and disciplines. This resulted in a determination to develop a listserv to unite the biological and physical sciences faculty, including colleagues at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute that would allow members to exchange ideas, find collaborators and announce interdisciplinary seminars.

Other actions receiving general approval were:

  • Providing seed money for use by postdoctoral scientists for cross-departmental research projects

  • Funding visiting scientists and short sabbaticals to stimulate creative thinking

  • Facilitating "bridge hiring" and joint academic appointments

  • Encouraging "thematic" hiring (a chemical biologist, for example)

The possibility of teaching relief for researchers to allow more time for innovative research and courses to train scientists in cross-disciplinary approaches also were discussed.

While no consensus was reached on particular research "themes" that could unite and build on various existing strengths, suggestions included encompassing such areas as "biomarkers," "therapeutic targets" and "translational research."

President John B. Simpson set the stage for the presentations and discussions that ensued by charging those present to focus on "where we are, where we need to go and how to get there" to transcend where UB is currently and to leave to him the problem of how to fund their vision.

"Why are we undertaking this task?" he asked rhetorically. "Because we are always in competition with other institutions for the best students, the best faculty, the best opportunities for institutional prominence. This institution has to make decisions on what is important academically and to dedicate resources accordingly."

Simpson noted that he has confidence in the faculty's ability to define and implement UB strategic strengths and to advance the university into national and international prominence in these areas. He urged the attendees to "think creatively, think 'plastic,' think long-term."

Huw M. Davies, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and a member of the molecular recognition planning group, following up Simpson's remarks, emphasized the challenge inherent in such a planning process. "Top-down decision-making is easy," he said. "Now we (the faculty) have to define what to do."

To provide fodder for the discussion to follow, faculty who currently lead six research focus groups that fall under the umbrella of "molecular recognition in biological systems" presented an overview of their group's work. These groups are molecular signaling, headed by Kenneth Blumenthal, chair of the Department of Biochemistry; developmental genomics, headed by Richard Gronostajski, professor of biochemistry; the Buffalo Center for DNA Replication and Repair, headed by Thomas Melendy, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

Also, pharmacometrics, headed by William Jusko, professor of pharmaceutics; the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Center, headed by Thomas Szyperski, professor of chemistry; and molecular diversity, presented by Davies.

Following these presentations, the attendees dispersed into four break-out groups to develop themes around which the various strengths could be clustered for maximum benefit.

The common point that emerged from all four groups was the lack of information about what colleagues in chemistry, the biological sciences and other related disciplines are working on, which inhibits cross-group connections. There was general agreement that resources must be allocated to set up a searchable database—an "intellectual inventory"—that would be easily useable. It was decided that a listserv will be initiated as a start to enable cross-communication.

Major points presented by the first break-out group included a call for more funding for basic research that is not necessarily focused on disease. Also raised was the problem of institutional barriers that inhibit interdisciplinary research, such as allocation of funding and departmental credit.

This problem, which also was raised by another discussion group, prompted the not-completely-serious suggestion of melding all such related departments into one "biomedical department" to eliminate such barriers. Blumenthal responded that such a department might be good for research, but would be bad for training new scientists.

The second break-out group suggested disease and molecular effectors as possible themes that connect the biological and chemistry disciplines. Cancer was a disease common to nearly all the disciplines represented, it was noted, as were diabetes and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, but to a lesser extent.

Topics from group three addressed the need to include cell imaging and systems biology under the molecular recognition umbrella. Members also noted that energy and resources should be directed to identifying companies that could be involved in collaboration and commercialization of research products.

Group four also raised cancer as a common research theme. Other possibilities mentioned were the "development of organs and tissues" and "instrumentation and screens."

The planning group of Blumenthal, Szyperski, Gronostajski and Jusko, as well as Michael Detty, professor of chemistry; Frank Scannapieco, professor and chair of oral biology; and Howard Strauss, professor and chair of physiology and biophysics, and other volunteers agreed to discuss the envisioning session information, develop major talking points and circulate them to the attendees for comment before attempting to develop a full report.